As we all know, these are unprecedentedly fast-moving times.* Hardly a month goes by without some age-old realm of human interest, passion or endeavor - one we might have assumed would be part of of the human landscape for centuries if not millennia to come - being suddenly pronounced redundant (or worst and most mysteriously of all, "irrelevant"), and therewith relegated to the heap of obsolescence and eventual uselessness and utter disgrace.
* Though as I recall we were saying much the same thing about the 1990s, and even more so about the 2000s - until one fine late summer's day everything came to not only an abrupt but a largely unexpected halt (and nowhere, I'm told, was it more unexpected than among those who'd been beating the drum of unprecedentedness the loudest).
But I think it will be an especially sad day when the experts consign poetry to the dustbin once and for all. I say that because for me poetry continues to have an irreplaceable and impregnable niche all its own: Not only are there still so many things it can do with words - to say nothing of ideas - but it goes on doing them so much better than other forms of knowledge or learning. Or even literature.
I'm not sure I can explain exactly what I mean to everyone's satisfaction. Let alone every Christian's. But I will try.
To me, what makes poetry a unique and even peculiar language is, first of all, what it does not do. Or at any rate not very well, or very convincingly. Poetry talks about a great many things; some might even say an illimitable universe of things. But what makes poetry different from other kinds of language we use is not so much the things it talks about, as what it does with them. Poetry does not primarily speak things into thoughts and ideas; or into opinions and heated emotions; or into use and useableness. The way, for instance, our treatises and editorials and training-manuals do. Nor does it principally speak things into abstraction or categorization or manipulation, as do our philosophy, science and engineering. Instead, what poetry does is to take a vast, indeed all but limitless variety of things, and speak them into a rather strange kind of being. Poetry understands, in a uniquely specific and individualizing and even sympathetic way, what it means for anything - or anyone - to be. With all that that implies for every level, degree and kind of creature. Being not just in some theoretical or metaphysical sense, or in the lowest common denominator sense of an atom or quark, but being as it fully encompasses creatures of every sort, including those at the most developed levels of sentience. And pretty much everything about them, too - and particularly those things that are of most absorbing interest to the creatures themselves. In other words, not just their most rudimentary or workaday goings-on, but their most pressing concerns of all. And not only at their point of origin - though that usually is of definitive importance - but at every point and turn of their lives. And most powerfully of all at their point of death. In short, poetry understands uniquely the language of need. And that even (and sometimes embarrassingly) in those most remarkable and apparently self-sufficient of all God's creatures we know of: Angels and men. Nothing speaks, as the language of poetry speaks, of every creature's need, however "tiny" its capacity, to be loved, to be understood, to be heeded, to be saved. And of course, who can know the utter direness of these needs, or indeed know any of these creatures in themselves, better than their Maker? And after Him, Man - at least in those rare moments when graces, events and circumstances conspire to make him co-operative?
Right now, though, I want you to look again, a bit more closely, at the short catalogue of need I compiled in my third to the last sentence. Review each of these needs in its turn, and see what you make of them. Is it just my personal pique, or are these precisely the same needs in any created thing - the same little rooms, as it were, in each and every one of us - that the proud and prosperous world tends to deem most lowly and humiliating? To say nothing of (most damning of all modern sins) unproductive? To be loved, to be understood, to be heeded, to be saved . . .
"Now you listen here," I can imagine some irreplaceably important person arguing, who's been having all this up to here by now. "It just so happens that I've done and made do WITHOUT these things all my life. And see what I've produced and achieved! Go ahead, search my accomplishments from top to bottom, and see if you find a counterfeit, or even so much as a mere 'credential,' among any of them! Nor did I ever wait for, much less ASK, anybody to understand, or love, or even listen to me. To be honest, whatever I needed I either found a way of getting, or else frankly just went and took. And to my mind, there's no reason on God's earth why every other creature He made can't function in more or less the same way. In fact, if you'll bother to look 'a bit more closely,' you'll notice that most of the SURVIVORS among them do."
(If I may interject, sort of makes me wonder how many breathtaking deeds of extreme productivity - not to mention extreme oppressiveness [and that not just of the shirkers, but even more often of the workers] - have been justified in the pursuit of that modern Holy Grail, survival uber alles.)
But now imagine what may in fact be the supremest of ironies. Imagine these same lowly, yet in their own way lovely, rooms being also the place of our most direct contact with God, and of our most immediate closeness to God. If so, then for me certain conclusions follow. It follows that poetry, at least so far as it succeeds - as it issues in actual poems, and not mere versified prose - can only be a most curiously humble and intimate thing. Certainly in the place where it starts, if nowhere else. And of course, as in everything, it is the freshness of the wellsprings that best ensures the freedom of the stream. My point is that poetry, wherever we find it - and not least where we find it dwelling someplace farthest from verse, and most deeply imbedded in prose - is a speech unto itself, precisely because it touches us in those places where no other speech can. Not only closest to where we live, but closest to where, it may be, we are least conscious of living, or most in denial of living. Or most apt to have forgotten we ever lived there at all. As with a certain garden. At all events, regardless of where we stumble on it, or unexpectedly dig it up and dust it off from, poetry always consists of words that have a lilt, music and magic all their own, quite independent and irrespective of the things they talk about. This lilt, music, magic are themselves rooted, I believe, in the poet's power to stir up in us the remembrance of "places" - indelible states of mind and feeling - that we have perhaps largely forgotten; or fled from; or fallen so far down off of that we no longer know how to get ourselves back up. And this power is nowhere more potent than when the words themselves are, as it were, most fresh, and crisp, and clean with the savor of the breath of God. That is, when they're most concerned with those things about us - or rather, with that Everything about us - that our Maker is most concerned with: not our whims, or our wants, or even our supposedly most sovereignly self-creating wills; but rather with those needs in each of us that are at once most basic and primordial, and most final.
To sum up: Poetry is either the language of ultimate need, or it's nothing at all in its own right - nothing that can't be found in some ranting, pontificating newspaper comment or editorial. Or blog. Of all our various languages, poetry is the one most of us and like us, because like us it can no more escape from need than it can escape from God. And - lest anyone think I'm making an exception of the plentiful atheists and agnostics in the field - I believe that's true of any poet's words, whether she knows it (or Him) or not.
You may come up with all sorts of exceptions to my rule. Or even rules of your own that seem to make of my rule one big exception. My question is, in any given creative moment, how can one be sure that the Poet hasn't also gotten through, in one guise or other? A particular writer may hate, or thinks he hates, God. That doesn't mean his Maker is not stirring up His own ancient tongue in some forgotten cupboard of that author's being. I said poetry is the language of need: it doesn't follow that every poet is happy with or reconciled to this need, even as he exhibits or illustrates it. My point is that when it comes to a God as unpredictably persuasive as the One attested by both our Scripture and Tradition, nothing is humanly certain, much less humanly impregnable. Vehement denial of or even opposition to God are no guarantees of immunity to His influence. I've known people whose, as they see it, irrefutable experience of Satan is also one of their most unshakeable testimonies to both the reality and the love of his Enemy. And I imagine even the Devil must bear some trace of his Divine origins; else where would his powers of persuasion be? And if one irrevocably banished from the presence of God can still show marks of His influence and nature, how much more one, like any human poet, whose fate still hangs in the balance?
All the more reason, it seems to me, why we shouldn't be too eager to cast the better part of our poetry into the dustheap just yet. Or even to delete it permanently from every corner of our frantically "Preparing for Tomorrow" curricula. It may just yet have something more to teach us about the finer - or in any case the more serious - things of life. And maybe - who knows? - even be of some last use to us in our more patiently discerning attempts at survival.